Opioid fight requires more than words

When sizing up the double whammy wrought by heroin abuse and painkiller overprescription in America, words like “crisis” and “emergency” are tossed around so often there’s a risk they could lose their potency.

The Pierce County Council last month unanimously adopted a resolution acknowledging our local opioid crisis. That came just two months after the same council signed a less-official declaration of the same opioid crisis.

Meanwhile, President Trump used the authority of his office in October to elevate opioid abuse as a national public health emergency, though he put no additional federal funds behind it.

These ink-on-paper proclamations and solemn public statements have their place. They force elected officials to own up to having a problem, which, as anyone in a 12-step group knows, is the first step toward recovery.

In an age of sunshiny Amazon headquarters pitches and rose-colored community marketing blitzes, that’s not an easy thing for politicians to do.

But it’s past time to convert words into deeds, declarations into actions. That means getting opioids and dirty needles out of the hands of abusers, from the Mount Rainier foothills to the Key Peninsula and points between. That means making naloxene, a highly effective fatal overdose blocker, available to more first responders and addicts’ loved ones.

Above all, it means more focus on treating the problem, less on trying to jail our way out of it.

Heroin and painkiller overdoses claim the lives of two Washingtonians every day, adding to a national toll whose financial impact the White House recently revised to a half trillion dollars in 2015 — six times higher than previously estimated.

Pierce County has an annual rate of 10.2 opioid overdose deaths per 100,000 residents, worse than the statewide average of 9.8. And the lure of these narcotics among local young people is made frighteningly plain by the number of 18- to 29-year-olds in treatment; new patients in that age group rose from 18 percent of total first-time admissions in 2002 to 58 percent in 2015.

Some leaders emphasize public education, ala Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign from the 1980s, as a leading weapon in the war against opioids. Trump has said so, as has Pierce County Councilwoman Pam Roach. Advertising is an inexpensive weapon, too, Roach noted.

Studies have shown, however, that anti-drug ad campaigns have a mixed success record at best. And any notion that society can defeat the opioid epidemic on the cheap is misguided.

We look forward to more robust recommendations from the county’s opioid work group in early February. Beyond education and prevention, Councilman Derek Young expects the group to embrace “a therapeutic model” in which cops and courts divert more drug users into geographically dispersed treatment programs.

It helps that the council and County Executive Bruce Dammeier budgeted $4.37 million on behavioral health for 2018, including a 16-bed diversion center and two new mobile response teams.

Leadership at the state level is equally important, and Attorney General Bob Ferguson has lined up promising bills for 2018. They would zero in on the over-the-counter painkiller side of the equation, curtailing new prescriptions and strengthening information-gathering for doctors before they write pill orders.

Aggressive legal action by local governments also bears watching. Tacoma filed suit against Big Pharma in September, alleging drugmakers ignored the perils of long-term opioid use and falsely claimed low addiction risks.

Moves like these, and more, are needed to rein in a devastating dependence that lurks in the medicine cabinets of white-collar professionals as much as in the track marks of heroin junkies.

Acknowledging a crisis is a good first step. Acting on a crisis requires a running start and bold leap of faith.